Panasonic HDC-SD90 £499
17th Feb 2011 | 09:50
Full HD camcorder with option for 3D shooting
Panasonic HDC-SD90: Overview
Panasonic's HDC-SD90 records Full HD 1920 x 1080/50p video to SDHC and SDXC cards and is part of the firm's 1MOS range for 2011.
It's an AVCHD model aimed, primarily, at people who want an HD camcorder with a wide range of features and connectivity, and has the sort of subtle functionality prized by moviemaking enthusiasts who want to take full control over the images they shoot.
The SD90 makes a positive start with an f1.8 Panasonic lens – Leica Dicomar lenses appear on higher-end/3MOS models – that has a 28mm wide-angle equivalent allowing filmmakers to cram more into the frame without having to move further away from the subject.
Creative licence means it can be applied to any shot but for family users or holidaymakers it would work particularly well on party or landscape shots.
A three-inch touchscreen LCD ensures you can compose and review images in suitable detail, as well as making selections from the menu screen. It's particularly good to see zoom and record options incorporated into the screen.
You don't have to look away to find the correct button, just press an area on the left of the LCD to activate and use these controls.
In fact, many other aspects of the SD90's menu can be accessed on the screen, including setup and recording options, and photo modes. The camcorder can snap 5MP stills separately using its photo mode but can also grab 4.5MP images via the simultaneous-record function, meaning it's possible to nab a quick shot while you're actually recording video footage.
With 3D still a buzzword more than a mainstream consumer reality, the HDC-SD90 nevertheless makes a leap for the bandwagon by referring to its 3D filming capacity. The camcorder is capable of 3D movies but this requires you to buy an optional 3D conversion lens (the Panasonic VW-CLT1).
This will let you render images in 3D, but at a cost of over £200 extra it may have limited appeal. The conversion lens itself is large and somewhat bulky and definitely requires a hands-on demo prior to any purchase.
Manual modes are well served on the SD90, as befits a camcorder that's likely to gain popularity with low-budget moviemakers eager to grab attention on YouTube. Manual options include focus, white balance, shutter speed and iris.
There's a 21x optical zoom – plenty of scope for any moviemaker – plus an intelligent zoom option that takes it up to 40x and a digital range from 60x to a bewildering 1500x. An optical image stabiliser will help ensure movies aren't always blighted by shaky-cam syndrome.
The lack of either hard drive or flash memory has allowed Panasonic to keep the size of the SD90 down but fortunately this is without the resultant miniaturisation of buttons and controls it usually entails.
It is a camcorder that feels substantial yet easily controllable and it feels comfortable to hold. And chiefly because it's not ridiculously tiny or featherlight, it's a camcorder that remains easy to keep steady when making a panning or tilting shot.
Panasonic HDC-SD90: Performance
A camcorder like the HDC-SD90 that's setup for more adventurous users delivers the bonus of versatility. The camcorder's design embraces the need for creative photography features as well as the facts of what happens after you've filmed or snapped.
The SD90's photography skillset incorporates Face Recognition and Face Framing (just as it does in moviemaking mode) and can recognise up to six faces, which it will then automatically optimise the settings for – in order to deliver the best results it can. The Smile Shot function is even intuitive enough to interpret when one of your subjects is smiling and to snap a photograph automatically.
Other photo functions include hi-speed burst mode for rapid snapping, red-eye reduction and a three-mode flash (on, off, auto), with flash-level settings depending on brightness. It's an excellent array and one that reinforces the SD90's credentials as a true multimedia device.
Connectivity is now part and parcel of the moviemaking landscape, so whether you want to upload movies to sites such as YouTube or Vimeo, or to display them in all their Full HD glory on an HDTV via HDMI it's possible.
The SD90 has a superb socket selection: there's HDMI (mini) output for that vital high-def TV connection, AV output for non-HD devices, and USB 2.0 in order to hook up to a computer.
From a filmmaker's point of view it's also reassuring to see the inclusion of an external microphone input (the SD90 has mic level settings to help boost your audio results). We're also pleased to note the inclusion of a shoe adaptor so you can connect an external microphone or even a more powerful video light. These accessories will need to have their own power supply because this isn't a hot shoe.
The SD90 sets the bar high for camcorders under the £500 mark. The visuals are exceptional, with the Full HD resolution drawing out huge amounts of detail. See the dew holding onto a leaf, the textures on brick and woodwork and the lines (sadly) that add character to a face.
The autofocus is solid: reacting rapidly to changes in the scene and correcting for it just as fast. Even indoors or in low light, it's a reassuringly sturdy performer.
What is marginally frustrating is the auto white balance's tendency to boost greens. Our test footage shows hot/too-vivid greens – it's only greens, reds prove to be no problem – that add an unwanted, artificial feel to this particular footage.
It can be adjusted, or rather corrected, using manual white balance, and we'd recommend using manual settings as much as you can to take control over capturing images.
Indoor performance is just as noteworthy as exterior movies and the SD90's low-light performance is also commendable. The camcorder manages to create watchable images without too much grain.
Picture noise is kept to a minimum and you'll see precious few digital artefacts or pixellation on the edges of building or on fast movement. Our test footage captured cars thundering past and the resultant playback was smooth, controlled and realistic.
Sound reproduction is often a camcorder's Achilles heel – and the reason reviewers often complain about the lack of microphone inputs is that it equals no way of transcending or amending the audio results.
The SD90 quashes most major concerns by including an external microphone input, as well as having a menu system that offers some mic-level control.
Speech is recorded cleanly with even drop-off as you move away from, or to the sides of, the camcorder. We also recorded music from a high-quality source and were impressed with the quality and subtlety of the treble and mid-range on playback, but in terms of bass there's simply very little there, giving some sections of a track a rather one-sided feel.
An external mic is recommended to be in your accessories bag.
There's nothing spectacular included with the SD90, though it is supplied with Windows-only software that gives users access to some basic image management applications.
If you want editing tools then you'll need to consider your budget and functionality requirements. Mac users' 'need to know' is that the HDC-SD90 supports iMovie '11.
Panasonic HDC-SD90: Verdict
There are such a large number of positives about the HDC-SD90 it would be easy to get carried away with how good it is. Actually, strike that, it's important to give credit where it's due, and this Panasonic model will not let anyone down.
There's much to enjoy and benefit from, but perhaps the element that will stay with users the most is its versatility: camcorder, camera and a compelling array of PC/TV connectivity – what's not to enjoy?
The striking level of detail in our test footage has to be the standout – and so it should be with a camcorder; you don't really want other elements stealing the limelight. The SD90's images are so rich, pin-sharp and engaging that it will have you finding reasons to film.
Touchscreens can divide opinion – most often if the screen is unresponsive or hard to use – but the SD90's provides both a great view and snappy performance. It's perhaps not as slick as you'll find your mobile phone's to be, but prolonged use is unlikely to end in frustration.
The SD90 has some intriguing details and lower-key features and it's this subtlety and attention to detail that makes it such a productive camcorder. Guidelines can be activated that place a grid on the LCD screen to help ensure movies and photos are horizontally and vertically straight.
A Quick Start setting has the camera ready to film in a second, while the PRE-REC feature places a few seconds of video in a buffer memory, so you can actually record events that happened before you pressed the record button.
For those with Panasonic Viera TVs the Viera link is a labour-saving function, which enables the user to control playback via the TV's remote control. A small, and perhaps not essential, feature but practical nonetheless.
Battery life is reasonable and elements such as the built-in lens cover proved to be useful in protecting the Panasonic lens.
The SD90 has very few real failings. We did find the zoom lever to be harder to control than we'd like. Smooth zooming only came through trial, error and experience, as initially the zoom felt too fast and slick.
Open the LCD screen and you'll see buttons that include the on/off control. However, for some reason this has been placed in a truly awkward position – almost in a crevice. It's not particularly annoying but is a touch baffling.
A headphone socket to go with the external microphone would have added a final flourish to the socket selection, and would have reinforced the SD90's place among more frequent/ambitious moviemakers.
A massive thumbs-up for the Panasonic HDC-SD90. This is almost the complete camcorder. It's hard to see, for the sub-£500 price, how you could reasonably ask for more. Watching our test footage played back, even mundane shots are imbued with an almost-tactile quality.
The SD90 is stylish, effortlessly engaging to film with and is capable of superb moviemaking results. A contender for any low-budget filmmaking fan; if you get a chance to put it through its paces, then take it.